24 August 2010 – China National Nuclear Corp. is in talks over building a nuclear power plant in South Africa, a CNNC official said Tuesday, in the latest sign that China is gearing up to export nuclear technology at the same time as it rapidly expands its domestic reactor fleet.

Negotiations involve the potential transfer of nuclear technology to South Africa, although nothing concrete will be signed during the ongoing visit of South African President Jacob Zuma to China, the official, who declined to be named, said.

Concerns about climate change have thrust nuclear power, which relies on uranium as a fuel, back into the spotlight as a potential source of emission-free energy. Asian countries like China plan to accelerate programs to build reactors and European nations like Sweden are ending moratoriums on new nuclear plants.

In contrast to some renewable energy sources, nuclear technology is already commercial. Supporters say plants don’t require huge amounts of land compared to wind farms or biofuel plantations, and that safety continues to improve.

South Africa produces electricity through more than two dozen conventional plants and renewable sources, and also imports power from neighboring Mozambique. However, the country has periodically experienced power crises, which have resulted in rationing of electricity to large industrial customers and rolling blackouts imposed on residential and commercial end-users.

This has prompted it to explore the potential of new nuclear power plants to fill the electricity supply gap. China is working to become self-sufficient in advanced nuclear technology so that it doesn’t need to award multibillion dollar contracts to foreign companies to build domestic plants in the future. It’s also looking at selling nuclear technology overseas in countries such as Vietnam, Belarus and Argentina. While Chinese companies are unlikely to compete with heavyweight technology providers such as Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co. for such contracts, it helps position them for more lucrative deals in developed markets in future.

CNNC will meet several South African companies later Tuesday for further talks, the company official said, without giving more details.

South African and Chinese companies are signing a range of deals Tuesday during Zuma’s visit, covering sectors including energy, banking and railways.

Standard Bank Group will sign a memorandum of understanding with Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., which will provide a platform for promoting nuclear cooperation between the countries, according to a statement from the South African government delegation visiting China.

The two banks have been involved in discussions between China Guangdong Nuclear Power Co., another major state-owned nuclear reactor builder and plant operator, and the South African government, the statement said. CNNC has previously expressed interest in helping to build Argentina’s fourth nuclear power plant, Argentina’s Planning Ministry said in July.

Planning Minister Julio de Vido met with the head of CNNC, Mao Xiaming, to discuss the tender of construction contracts. They agreed that a Chinese delegation will travel to Argentina in August, while in September representatives from Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission will visit China, the ministry said.